The U.S. military had unusually strong words for Beijing over social media on Saturday after recent reports that an American reconnaissance plane had been warned to “leave immediately” during a flight near China’s man-made islands in the contested South China Sea.
Reporters with CNN and the BBC had been given a rare chance Friday to look at the islets in the Spratly chain of the waterway from aboard a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon at 16,500 feet.
During the flight, reporters were shown four low-lying coral reefs in the Spratlys — Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson Reef and Mischief Reef — three of which were turned into garrisons with massive radar installations, scores of buildings and military-grade runways. The crew received six separate warnings from the Chinese military, telling them they were inside Chinese territory and urging them to leave, CNN reported.
“Leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding,” a voice was heard in a video.
In response, the U.S. military plane noted that it was conducting “lawful military activities beyond the national airspace of any coastal state.”
Both reports quoted the U.S. side as saying the warnings were common and had no effect on their operations.
The BBC report also picked up a separate, more vociferous warning by the Chinese, apparently to a Philippine plane nearby. It’s tone and wording was starkly different to the ones issued to the U.S. side.
“Philippine military aircraft, I’m warning you again. Leave immediately or you will bear responsibility for all the consequences!” a voice can be heard saying.
Beijing’s relations with Manila have improved under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has not pressed China over the South China Sea. Relations had soured when Duterte’s predecessor took their dispute over the waterway to an international tribunal in The Hague, which ruled against China.
Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
China has said the facilities are for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.
Washington has blasted Beijing for the island-building, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, with the U.S. conducting a number of so-called freedom of navigation operations in the area.
On Saturday, at least three of the U.S. military’s Twitter accounts had forceful words for China over its warnings.
“We will sail, fly and operate wherever international law allows,” the U.S. Navy’s verified Twitter account said Saturday in a retweet of the CNN story. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s verified account also retweeted the story, writing that: “The United States will not be ‘warned off’ from lawful operations in international waters and airspace.”
In Japan, where the P-8A that flew near the South China Sea islands is believed to be based, U.S. Forces Japan’s Twitter account echoed this sentiment.
“Japan-based US Navy P-8As contribute to regional peace and security every day by flying wherever international law allows,” it tweeted.